UML’s National Congress: Oli creates an impressive cult of personality. But is the party as unified as its leaders claim?

Long-lived culture of ‘note-of-dissent’ and ‘self-criticism’ is all but dead in today’s UML. The deification of its Chair at the inauguration of its 10th National Congress underscored that.

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Chitwan: The tenth National Congress of the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) started on Friday amid much fanfare.

The party with more than 700,000 cadre base deployed thousands of vehicles to ferry people to the banks of Narayani River, one of the largest rivers, in Chitwan, a district in southwestern Nepal.

The bank is some 14 kilometers away from Dasdhunga, the site where UML’s firebrand leader Madan Kumar Bhandari was killed in a car accident in 1993. Bhandari had given a new turn to Nepal’s communist movement by introducing ‘People’s Multiparty Democracy’ (Janatako Bahudaliya Janabad), an ideology most UML leaders swear to even today.

But in Chitwan, Bhandari’s ideology, long considered to have transformed Nepal’s communist movement into a pragmatic one, was overshadowed by the overt glorification of UML chair KP Sharma Oli.

It appeared that the inauguration was an opportunity to demonstrate the power and brand of its chairperson KP Sharma Oli as a singular statesman of the party and the country as a whole.

The event venue featured Oli’s flamboyant, larger than life portraits. Tens of thousand participants from across the country chanted slogans invoking Oli. In contrast, serving a symbolic purpose, small images of Pushpalal Shrestha, Madan Bhandari and Manamohan Adhikari–the founding members of UML–were used at the backdrop of Oli’s larger portraits. Madan Bhandari was talked about little, or he was limited to smaller frames.

Spiral of silence 

The venue reverberated with slogans and chants, loud and belligerent, all praising Oli–‘KP Oli! K P Oli! KP Ba, We Love You!’

A number of leaders and cadres, however, were not happy with this glorification, holding small group meetings secretly.

“We all made contributions to build the party organization, but today, those who speak critically of the party and its leadership are seen as enemies by the top leadership,” a delegate from Bara told Nepal Live Today

“None of the leaders announced their candidacy on Friday, partly because of the fear that contesting elections without KP Oli’s blessings would lead to a loss,” another UML cadre said.

No wonder KP Oli, a leader who rose to power by running a separate coterie known as KP Oli gut, is now advocating for a no-panel. 

A leader from ANNFSU, the party’s student wing, said that advocacy of non-panel candidacy has two-fold objectives: to ensure Oli’s wider acceptance and highlight that candidates without Oli’s favor cannot win.

Apparently, there is a spiral of silence within the party. 

Missing Madhav Nepal 

In the ninth National Congress of 2014,the Madhav Nepal faction was not weak. There was only 39 vote difference between Oli and Nepal–Oli got 1,002 votes while Nepal trailed behind with 963 votes.

Nepal Live Today met a number of leaders who missed Madhav Nepal. When asked if the absence of Madhav Nepal has impacted the party, majority of them said that it had.

“If Madhav Nepal had remained in the party, KP Oli would not have been this arrogant. A towering leader of his stature would always be able to question Oli’s decision. But he [Nepal] split the party. This helped Oli become even stronger in the party,” a central committee member told Nepal Live Today on condition of anonymity.

KP Oli, as always, delivered populist statements. In front of a huge mass of supporters, he boasted about the achievements made during his premiership while claiming how only the CPN-UML will lead the country to prosperity in the future, a tried, tested and failed proposition.

“If there were leaders like Madhav Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal in the party, they would surely question Oli,” he said.

When asked why they are with the party if they are against KP Oli, the member said, “Splitting the party was a wrong decision. We know the party is suffering at the hands of Oli but we are afraid to speak up. Raising any question could spell the end of our political careers.”

Populism parade

KP Oli, as always, delivered populist statements. In front of a huge mass of supporters, he boasted about the achievements made during his premiership while claiming how only the CPN-UML will lead the country to prosperity in the future, a tried, tested and failed proposition.

In his 52-minute-long speech, Oli talked about, among other things, satellites, connecting Nepal with the sea, “tunnel-era”, and about displacing tuin crossings.

The convention is held at a time when Nepal is a year away from holding local and general elections.

“The CPN-UML-led government helped Nepal transform from a landlocked country to a land-linked country,” Oli said in his address, in his characteristic rhetoric. He went on to claim that his party had changed the concept of development in Nepal.

“We have said the sea is also ours,” he declared. “Space is also ours. We have already been successful in sending a satellite to space.” He was referring to Nepal’s first satellite, ‘NepaliSat-1’, sent to space two years ago.

He also said that he was the first PM to talk about the rights of Nepal in the sea. Although he is not in the government anymore, he said, he was in talks with the Indian authorities about the waterways.

Oli did not forget to mention the post-earthquake reconstructions and the issuance of the new administrative and political map including Nepal’s territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura a year ago.

Oli looks almost certain to lead the party for the next term as well. Inauguration charade was evidence that he has a huge follower base. But the question many of his own cadres and leaders were asking was: Will he also be able to rise above factional interests and realize the need for acceptance of diversity as a leader of a major political party of Nepal?